Alex Blaze

Silence = Death

Filed By Alex Blaze | October 12, 2008 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: AIDS Memorial Quilt, gay community, HIV/AIDS, lgbt movement, NAMES Project, pat buchanan, ronald reagan

I've been impressed with the Coming Out Day essays of the other contributors here at The Bilerico Project, and I wanted to use mine to talk about the people who won't be coming out today.

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From The Body:

Alongside red ribbons, the AIDS Memorial Quilt is probably the most widely recognized symbol of the epidemic. Since the first panel was created in 1986, the entire Quilt had grown by 1996 to include nearly 50,000 individual three-by-six-foot panels covering more than 32 acres.

Designed by lovers, family, friends, and others in honor of one or more persons who died of AIDS-related causes, the colorful panels typically include photos, quotations, and other mementos of the deceased. As a cultural phenomenon, the Quilt recalls the practice of quilt making as a communal activity and evokes the folk traditions of "memory quilts" composed of old clothing, blankets, and other items from different family members. As an educational tool, the Quilt offers an emotionally moving yet unthreatening and, some argue, sanitized focus for HIV/AIDS awareness.

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We celebrate our coming out because, for many in the community, coming out is a time when we move beyond the shame of living in the closet to live more fulfilling lives. As a political act, each and every coming out weakens the ideas that all humans are basically heterosexual and that queers are a dangerous and worthless group of people.

At that point, we come together to form communities with varying levels of involvement and bring to those communities different experiences, values, and skills.

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In the late 70's gay men began to die from generally non-fatal infections like cat scratch fever. The syndrome was called "gay cancer" and GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency). By 1984, AIDS had been isolated and had the name it has today.

Ronald Reagan's refusal to acknowledge and fight the disease became a major impediment to halting the disease. According to Rep. Henry Waxman in 1985:

It is surprising that the president could remain silent as 6,000 Americans died, that he could fail to acknowledge the epidemic's existence. Perhaps his staff felt he had to, since many of his New Right supporters have raised money by campaigning against homosexuals.

By the time Reagan had even spoken about the issue, 20,849 Americans had died because of the virus.

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Silence helped spread this virus, in more forms than the Reagan Administration's complacency. And as people continue to die, a lack of conversations about community health and safe sex continue to take people's lives.

Thinking about the massive death that this virus brought on, one can't avoid the conclusion that the silence around the issue was part of an intentional genocide. Pat Buchanan, then Reagan's communications director, argued that AIDS was "nature's revenge on gay men." And he was far from the only person to be making that claim.

When someone wants to wipe out an ethnicity, letting a virus do that job would appear to be the easiest means to that end. But since homosexuality and bisexuality aren't passed down genetically, wiping out a generation of queers disrupted our culture, retarded our developing political power, and effectively broke continuity between several generations of queers.

And that would be only part of the impact if the virus had stopped, which it hasn't.

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I'm posting these panels from the AIDS Memorial Quilt because these are people who otherwise could have been alive today. Each loss was tragic at the time and is tragic today. One victim could have continued community organizing in Chicago. Another could have become a schoolteacher. One might have become a creepy guy who would have eyed me in a gay bar. Maybe another could have been a leader in the national LGBT movement. Yet another could have been a Bilerico contributor.

I don't know what contributions to the community these people could have continued to have made. I don't know how they could have affected the lives of younger queers. I don't know how enormously different our lives would be with their contributions to our communities, cultures, and activisms.

This Coming Out Day, I'm coming out for them, because we can't let silence take more lives. I'm coming out for them to help remember their lives. And I'm coming out for them to remind us of the vacuum left on this planet by their absence.

Images from the NAMES Project Foundation. Please take a chance to view more quilt panels and help in their efforts.


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Beautifully done.

Thank you.

I still, six years on, can't find a way to write about hearing the list of names being read out in Barcelona. People were doing it in blocks; it took all day. Near the beginning, someone added "mi amigo" after one of the names.

Alex,

You said what I have been saying for many, many years re: the progress that gay people were making in the United States before AIDS. It's incredible how things changed after 1981 when the first cases of the "Gay Cancer" accompanied by KS lesions and Pneumocystis Pneumonia appeared in San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C. and other U.S. cities. Everything did change. The progress we had made in the 60s, 70s and early 80s came to a screeching halt. If not for an Indiana kid named Ryan White and Phil Donahue and Elton John and activists like Larry Kramer, and many others, nothing would have been done. It seems reasonable to believe if the Pat Buchanans and the Mike Huckabees of the world would have had their way; then we would have been isolated on some unclaimed island and left to fend for ourselves. I'm sure they (Reagan and his disciples) would not have chosen Molokai as the commercial value of that island, in their "Republican" value system far exceeds the value of all the people with HIV/AIDS in the United States and maybe the entire world.

Recently, I was happy to share my on HIV/AIDS story with Bilerico readers. If you didn't read it a few weeks ago, the link is http://www.bilerico.com/2008/09/learning_to_live_and_love_all_over_again.php

Yesterday, was also the AIDS Walk and Ride in Indianapolis. My partner, John, and I walked as did only few hundred others who are affected or infected. The size of the walk was so much smaller than in years' past. I'm not sure why but I do know that people are living longer with AIDS, but that in no way reduces the need for the community, and particularly the gay community, to be involved. Unfortunately, the number of walkers under 35 - 40 years of age (just a guess at where to draw an age line) is quite small. I know it may no longer seem to the public at large or the gay community that HIV/AIDS is an epidemic, but it is. And, it effects gays in a much greater percentage than every other segment of the population. Still, still today and there is no sign for a vaccine or a cure and every gay man is vulnerable. Also, HIV/AIDS is not a "walk in the park." Taking a pill or two or three or twenty-three is not without extreme cost to a person's well-being, physically, emotionally and financially.

We should all cherish the memory of those who have gone before. They were pioneers and they never asked to be. They died painful and often lonesome deaths, but the sad thing is that in the United States of America and around the world, it is still happening.

Fortunately, we know enough now to avoid contracting HIV. For those who are HIV-negative, I urge you to remain that way with every fiber of your being, working to ensure that you stay safe. Please know that the antiretroviral medications may allow you to live longer, but they will not allow you to live better lives when you still have the choice to remain negative. On the other hand, if you are positive, get treatment. Join a support group. Services are likely available for you if you seek them out. If you are positive, be responsible. I can not image how I would feel if I knowingly passed this disease on to another person. Yes, you can live with the disease and you can get help, but you must be responsible and you must become empowered to take control of your own health and your own circumstances.

Well, I may have rambled and I may have gotten off topic a bit, but I hope my message resonates with at least one person.

Read my story. I think it gives a lot of hope and strength to everyone because I have had 100% positive feedback from dozens of people all over the world.

Here's the link again:

http://www.bilerico.com/2008/09/learning_to_live_and_love_all_over_again.php

Alex, keep writing about HIV/AIDS. It's important.

Thanks, Kim Johnson

A longer version of "My Personal Story" can be found at the Positively Aware magazines website. The Test Positive Aware Network (TPAN) publishes Positively Aware, a national magazine devoted to HIV/AIDS.

http://www.positivelyaware.com/2008/08_05/personal_story.html and www.tpan.com has additional information for those who might want to know more about HIV/AIDS.

Thanks again, Kim Johnson

Thanks Alex, this is far and away the best post I've seen in months.

We lost two generations of lovers, activists and friends and the shock is still with us, as is our rage at the gloating christian vermin who chortled as they died.

We’re finally recovering our balance after decades of anguish and loss yet both parties refuse to allocate the resources to convince gay youth and particularly gays in minority communities that their lives are precious. They interfere with needle and condom programs and refuse to flood the schools and media with the facts about HIV and the “cure” myth. Instead the bigotry that pushes vulnerable people to self destruction rolls on unchecked. Hate crimes are unimpeded. Hate speech is out of control and exacts a deadly toll. We’re treated like pariahs especially by those whose religious prejudice says we can't marry.

They’re repeating Reagan’s malicious contempt and it’s having the same fatal effect.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | October 13, 2008 4:50 AM

Mr. Perdue, I agree with you, completely.

I cannot think of this disease without remembering that so many Gay kids lost a previous mentoring generation and their example.

What a great post, Alex.

One of my favorite gifts from my late great grandmother and (not-so-late) grandmother is a memory quilt they made together for me when I was young.

One of my least favorite memories is of making the quilt panels for two friends. While I realize that for many people, making the quilt panels is cathartic and empowering, it made me even more angry. The government did nothing to cure the disease for so many years, the friends didn't practice prevention techniques and the sheer brutality of knowing that I was impotent to change either of those problems.

Thank you for this post! (and to all the commenters)

I just learned and also sent to Bil that the Indiana AIDS Walk had 2,200 people there on Oct. 11 (the most since Indiana AIDS Fund took over the walk in 2003 -- when the front of the Walk was crossing Senate Blvd., the end of the Walk was still on the Circle. That has not happened to date.) As of today, the walk has raised $152,000 -- the goal was $150,000 -- and donations are still being accepted at the organization, contact info at www.indianaaidsfund.org, and the site will be up to receive online donations for several more weeks, www.indianaaidswalk.org.

Money raised by the Indiana AIDS Walk & Ride goes to the Gregory R. Powers Direct Emergency Financial Assistance (DEFA) program, housed at the Indiana AIDS Fund. These funds will help individual families maintain their health, home, job and family-in every corner of Indiana through the HIV Care Coordination sites.

Rev. Rick Elliott | October 19, 2008 10:41 AM

I hope you can write about a similar project--the SHOWER OF STOLES. I am a Presbyterian minister, ordained in June, 1973. I was married in January, 1972. In the late 80's I had to accept that I am gay--something incompatible with being married and incompatible with the calling I have and the gifts God has given me to serve well in that calling. In 1990 I considered a divorce, but, by then, my wife was so sick she would have had to live in assisted living. She and I came to an understanding and I decided to stay. She died in 1991--but she continued to be a "front" for me so that I could continue in my calling in a denomination where being gay would make it almost impossible to find employment. I have served my denomination in important ways from a national level to a local level, but now am not qualified to serve if I find the love of my life.
My own health started going downhill, in large part due to the stress leading a double life. After a particularly awful incident in the church, unrelated to my being gay, I started thinking and decided to quietly leave my parish. I probably could have stayed, but my health was such that I couldn't work a full week anymore and I felt that that congregation didn't need to spend the energy on my coming out.
Several years later, after I thought enough time had passed so that it wouldn't be a major factor to my former parish, I came out as part of the debate on the ordaining of homosexual people. We lost the vote, but I feel better by what I did and I wanted to "put a face" to the issue. I still have many friends in the presbytery (diocese), but many more look through me so that I have to force myself to attend the quarterly meetings. I'm still invited to do what I call "hit and run" preaching: filling in when needed.
I found out about the Shower of Stoles when a gay activist group I was a part of scheduled to have it in our area. Each stole represents a person who can't serve or begin to serve as an ordained minister or elder in the Presbyterian Church. A parishioner had made a liturgical stole for me that was very special to me. It was used during Advent(the Sundays celebrating Christ's coming again, leading up to Christmas) and Lent (Sundays leading up to Easter). My favorite part of the stole was the pair of dice on the Lenten side of the stole. They represented the casting of lots for Jesus' robe. I wrote up my story and planned to donate that stole to the Shower of Stoles when it was in town. I tried to spread the word about the Shower of Stoles coming to Houston. I wanted as many homosexual folks to see it as possible. Originally it was to be displayed at one of our quarterly presbytery meetings. We had our display of stoles for a month and it was displayed in many different places, mostly United Church of Christ congregations and one Presbyterian congregation. But I contacted OUT SMART--a gay publication in the area. There was a full page picture and story about the display. Also the city newspaper printed a schedule of where the display would be shown. The local presbytery got cold feet because of the press articles and decided not to have the Shower of Stoles as scheduled.
That fearful reaction of the presbytery still makes me angry several years since. But what hurts me most is how my publicity efforts and the presbytery's fear defeated the purpose of the woman who had wanted the stoles to be shown at the presbytery meeting. It was one of the ways she wanted to acknowledge someone gay who was as special to her as her life.
Gays can still serve in ordained office as long as they agree not to have a life partner or be a part of keep in the closet.
The Shower of Stoles has a similar impact as the AIDS quilt--in a way it represents the death of a calling-- denominations throwing away the gifts God has given a person who also happens to be homosexual. If we cut through all the pious rhetoric, it really means the Presbyterians and many other denominations saying God made a mistake when giving gifts of the Spirit to one group whom God created in God's own image and to whom God gave gifts of ministry and church leadership.
Oh, by the way, I write this early Sunday morning. A congregation where I frequently preach is expressing its appreciation of me and the Gifts of the Spirit given me. But it's not a Presbyterian congregation. That acknowledgement makes me feel appreciated, but it also makes me want to cry.


Karen Lohn | August 1, 2010 3:24 PM

Thank you for all of this sharing; the stories are inspiring.
I am wondering if I might use one of the images of the quilt in a book that I am writing entitled Peace Fibres: Stitching a Soulful World. In it, I enlist fibre work as metaphor and manifestation of harmonious relationship with self, others, and the larger world. I have encluded a piece on the Aids Quilt in a chapter on Resilience in which I focus on the ways in which fibres help the recovery process from tragedy. A photo of a quilt piece would enhance the text beautifully.
I would, of course, cite the photographer and your website and any other information that could serve your mission.
May I use an image? If so, what, if any, fees might be involved?
Thank you for considering my request. I look forward to your response at my email address above.
Respectfully,
Karen Lohn